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A Reflective Reading of a Sonnet

by Chokri Omri
I shall first start out with reading Shakespeare’s sonnet number 116:


Let me not to the marriage of true minds 

Admit impediments. Love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds, 

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 

It is the star to every wand'ring bark, 

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 

Within his bending sickle's compass come; 

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 

If this be error and upon me prov'd, 

I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

To embark upon knowledge by means of ignorance is to do the wrong deed for the right reason. Let no one make and take and take again the very preposterous discovery and then tell me all of a sudden that this sonnet is great. For I know beforehand and, as a matter of fact, my concern is not to testify to the greatness of this sonnet but rather to what sort of message William Shakespeare feels like delivering to us on the cess of it. My aim, I insist, is two-fold; Together with putting Shiller’s dictum into question by way of criticism levelled against his ambivalent philosophical stance, I will show how the theme of love has been treated from the renaissance period. 

The renaissance period, in fact, did not have to wait for England so as to be incepted. It started rather in Italy and Spain and it became henceforth a widespread phenomenon thanks both to its flexible operational processes and the accessibility and clarity of its ideas having to do with revival and at the same time diremption of the past. I will start with this second tenant of my aim and leave the first one to the second part so as to save my essay from inaccuracy and barren formalism.

The renaissance era makes explicit the fact that Love stands out as an indispensable feature of man’s desire not so much to exist but more importantly to better exist. To exist without looking towards a better prospect of life is simply to exist, though hesitatingly, like subalterns. To better exist without looking backward is simply to live, though forcibly, like no one else.

What possible sense is to be obtained out of the first line and the first half of the second in this sonnet? No obstacles, the speaker seems to say, should be allowed to stand out against the marriage of true minds. True minds are according to me evocative of those people whose better parts (their minds) are personified and whose ultimate objective of life is unity and not division or separation. John Donne, the supposedly metaphysical poet, is of some proper help to us in this respect. He somewhere in his poems pointed out to the fact that without love, we can have no way but falsehood to be true. But here again, we must protest and say that the sonnet under consideration is referring to true minds. We know that love is the output of our hearts.

True people, to justify the first idea mentioned above, do not fall or degenerate into making the mistake of allowing conflictual relationships to be established between their minds and hearts. If our hearts, to be more precise, are devoid of love, then our minds are not likely going to become true nor will they really be able to produce let alone to contribute to human knowledge.

People, at least those who know they have got minds, which scarcely happens in these bleak times, will admit no impediments to the marriage of their minds. But minds, after all, do not unify as Gary lane would have it. Minds see differences not unities, they divide. There is then something of paramount importance to be present for the marriage of true minds. Not all minds are true and this is why there must exist a paradigm to see which minds are true and which minds are not. To say the like but differently, people should set their minds on things that are fundamental and vital for unity and peaceful coexistence. If they cherish some love for one another, they will never find themselves obliged to be indecent or accept to be divided. This is how it goes, nobody wants to be cruel with people but sometimes they are the ones, and not the circumstances, who need to be taken forcibly for the principal cause of one’s behaviour at their expense. 

Let us but take for the sake of clarification and illustration the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who albeit feeling so intensely for the unity of people when he wrote “The social contract” ended up living in solitude with an almost chattered character. He refused to see people or to even read what they wrote. “The reveries of a solitary stroller”, the last book he wrote though, we regret to say, it remained unfinished due to his tragic death, is expressive of this a great deal. He, after having purported to establish some proper order upon society through the social contract, quickly found himself lost and in an incomprehensible chaos at the end of his life.

“Tiré je ne sais comment de l’ordre des choses, je me suis vu précipité dans un chaos incompréhensible ou’ je n’aperçois rien du tout; et plus je pense à ma situation présente et moins je puis comprendre ou’ je suis.”

Then, later in “The reveries of a solitary stroller”, he has got also at his disposal this to say about the harm people did to him he the one who never wanted to cause anyone any harm.

“Avec le dédain qu’il m’ont inspiré leur commerce me serait insipide et même à charge, et je suis cent fois plus heureux dans ma solitude que je ne pourrait l’etre en vivant avec eux. Ils ont arraché de mon coeur toutes les douceurs de la société…et quoi qu’ils fassent, mes contemporains ne seront jamais rien pour moi.”

Friedrish Hölderlin, Nietsczche’s but also Heidegger’s favourite poet or as the latter likes to call him the “poet of poets”, never found one single reason for not confessing his ultimate disenchantment towards those who treated him unreasonably at the very time of his mental breakdown. There is no asking of the question why he went insane for more than twenty years. He opted for solitude so as to forget but then realized that people could not even remember what he was trying to forget. He said: “Now I only understand man when I am far away from him and living in solitude.”


Mais qui sait aujourd’hui ce que

c’est que la solitude?


But then, Nietszche. What did he say when he finished up being sick of every one and his sister and his mother were not to make the exception? He knew that something must necessarily be at stake which he could not find out. So, he opted obligingly for silence and kneeled down to a maxim of the past he the one who hated maxims and proverbs in the deep recesses of his heart.


“Ma philosophie me conseille de me taire et de ne pas pousser plus loin les questions; surtout

que, dans certains cas, comme l’indique le proverbe, on ne reste philosophe qu’en gardant le silence.” 


The marriage of true minds then, to rivert back to the sonnet, will become possible only when impediments, say obstacles, are kept away from its course. It must not be forgotten that here the word “marriage” is extremely important in that it is overloaded with sense and meaning because it refers to some willed-commitment and constancy. But in order for this to have a longevity and persistence there must be something upon which we can hinge and even call upon to keep this motive activated. It must be pointed out that marriage is never admired for its own sake. It is admired for the promise it is supposed to hail for the sake of unity. Were it not for the fact that, so to speak, it aims at stabilizing and ordering people’s lives and that it paves the very way for them to live together peacefully and harmoniously, marriage would, more often than not, find people themselves as impediments.

For want of a wider intelligibility with regard to our intention to work out a closer appreciation of the sonnet, let it be made clear right from the onset that no matter how far we seem to be from being able to come to terms with the exacting message of the sonnet if we undertake and level one hasty reading of it, we can, nevertheless, manage to say that it represnts what Friedrish Hölderlin calls “an extended metaphor” not so much of what cannot be said directly but rather of that which whose aim is to reflect upon the nature of love and establish a clear rapport between it and the reality it seeks to uplift and improve.

‘La parole germinative’ of this sonnet is perhaps this one which prompted Shakespeare to express it in six lines and a half:


“Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove;

O, no! It is an ever- fixed mark,

That looks on tempests, and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”


It is not here any business of ours to maintain that the form a Shakespearian sonnet will take is one of three quatrins and a closing couplet. We are rather and more importantly of the very insatiable desire to concern ourselves with the part of it that keeps the content of the sonnet brighter than the rest do. Au lieu de faire une vague allusion à la forme, il faut se demander quelle est sa fonction comme sédimentation du contenu. Here, I assume, the substance is found in these six lines and a half. I would not care so much if the remaining parts of the sonnet were to get wiped off and disappear.


Shakespeare himself, were he to be told this, would pull himself together and help me in doing this. Love is not love which changes with the time. If ever it changes, then let us be in the apodectic certainty that it is anything but love. Love does not encourage the remover of love to remove the object of love. It may encourage him to remove obstacles like people for example but not to remove the very object of love because otherwise it is lost and then we go back to the point we started from which holds the view of Shakespeare that love should not change with the time. Love is an ever-fixed mark. Love is the star to every wandering bark.

It is worth pointing out at this stage of our reading the distinction Shakespeare wanted to make and did in fact about a fixed mark and the star which, to our minds, represent the two most important elements of the metaphoric bearing they must have on love. 

Love is first a fixed mark. Shakespeare wanted it to be indefinite when using the indefinite article ‘a’ in order perhaps to mock people on earth who are changing all the time and then keep on claiming they are definite.

Shakespeare could have said for example that love is the fixed mark. The reason behind his avoidance of that is perhaps this one: He does not want love

to be associated with anything because when using the definite article ‘the’ he would necessarily find himself under the obligation of associating love with an earthly claim. Then, by the same token, he held that love is the star feeling thereby some sort of relief in escaping earthly objects and rising so high to the skies which he does not know and yet insisted on using the definite article ‘the’ in order to mock people time and again by showing how he places his faith in what is transcendental and how he assigns the definite to the indefinite and the indefinite to the definite.